Educated, Yet Excluded: Why Access to Education for Iranian Women is Not Enough

Women’s education level is often considered a significant indicator of modernity and socio-economic progress. Today, there is a major global push to increase women’s access to education in an effort to dismantle the patriarchal societal structures that have left women disenfranchised. This effort is especially pressing given that two-thirds of all illiterate people are women; the effort to promote literacy is thus inextricably linked to women’s empowerment. The movement to address the obstacles facing women’s access to education can be seen quite clearly in the United Nation’s “Global Goals for Sustainable Development”, which was enacted this past summer. While these stated objectives ranged from poverty elimination to climate action, the UN — with the encouragement of NGOs like Save the Children — devoted particular attention to increasing women’s access to education. The empirical evidence that an educated female workforce helps to facilitate long term economic growth is widely understood, making it a goal that is seldom opposed in the international system. However, increased access to education for women does not always correlate with higher levels of employment and integration into the labor force. Although women’s education is undoubtedly a necessary condition for gender equality, it is not sufficient to level the playing field and create the desired economic effects that state leaders hope for.

Iran provides a particularly salient example of this phenomenon. The country has near-universal female literacy, with women making up the majority of university students (60 percent) as well as the majority of science degree graduates (68 percent) –in fact, women consistently outperform men in the classroom. Despite this, Iranian women have experienced a limited ability to engage in the labor force and met a condemnable patriarchal state culture that has denied them basic rights. For instance, women in Iran are barred from leaving the country without the permission of a man and prevented from watching men’s sports in stadiums. Beyond this, crippling Western sanctions have exacerbated Iran’s large-scale economic issues and hurt women disproportionately, inadvertently stunting the movement towards gender equality. The current state of gender relations in Iran demonstrates that educational opportunity alone is not enough to help women’s engagement in the economy. The effort to increase women’s access to education and literacy must be coupled with a movement to address the social climate and governmental policies that value men’s work differently than women’s.

As in many other countries, workplace biases in Iran often compel employers to hire male workers of identical or lesser qualifications than their female counterparts. In other nations, gender employment quotas have been used to curb these biases, but Iran has moved in the opposite direction by imposing limiting quotas on the number of women permitted to be hired. For instance, as a matter of principle, Iranian women are banned from working in – and even entering – coffee shops. As of September 2015, they are also limited from participating in government and public sector jobs; regardless of their qualifications, only about 10 percent of women are permitted to enter these sectors. Beyond this, universities have moved to individually impose quotas that favor men by limiting the number of women that are allowed to enter certain disciplines. In more extreme cases, some universities have imposed single sex courses and have required professors to teach classes twice, once for men and once for women. These examples show that the effort to improve women’s access to education is not enough when a government works to systematically prevent women from reaping the benefits of their education or operationalizing their education with equal opportunities as men.

The effort to increase women’s access to education and literacy must be coupled with a movement to address the social climate and governmental policies that value men’s work differently than women’s.

The consequences of this governmental attitude towards women’s employment is quite clear: Only 13 percent of the workforce is comprised of women while unemployment figures for the group stand at 15.6 percent officially. Additionally, only 9.2 percent of Iranian entrepreneurs are women. For obvious reasons, this limits competition and the potential for economic growth in Iran; after all, if a country has unchecked labor discrimination against roughly 50 percent of the population, it is likely to employ less productive workers, thereby stunting output. This issue is particularly apparent in Iran since the highly educated female population possesses a high degree of human capital and thus has significant potential to increase the country’s productivity.

Of course, these policies come in the context of a culture that has perpetuated patriarchal social structures. Although urban centers like Tehran are far more liberal than the clerics in power and the rural parts of the country, the current Iranian state remains heavily guided by Abrahamic dogmas that subjugate women to state-sanctioned oppression. In direct contrast to the energy and relative liberalism of Iran’s youth, older generations and ruling classes that witnessed an Islamic Revolution restructure the nation’s political and cultural identity do not possess the same affinity for progress towards gender equality.

So while governmental policy that fails to restrict sexist discrimination in the labor market has undoubtedly contributed to a rise in the Iranian gender employment gap, a dominant social understanding that holds a patriarchal view of women’s place in society works together with such policies. The societal emphasis on employing men instead of women is particularly noticeable in periods of vast unemployment, when employers are faced with the deliberate task of whether or not to hire or fire equally qualified workers. For instance, between 1997 and 2007, when Iranian unemployment was at its worst, unemployment rates for men hovered around 4.2 percent and 34.1 percent for women. This statistical discrepancy, though staggering in itself, does not incorporate the large number of Iranian women who likely left the labor market entirely and were therefore not counted in unemployment statistics. These figures show that when Iranian society was faced with the prospect of having to reduce its employment figures, the first jobs to go were women’s. This highlights the fact that, despite the liberalization of the country in recent years, Iranian women are simply not treated as valuable to the workforce as men despite their higher levels of education and human capital.

The imposition of Western-led sanctions on Iran has also stunted the gender equality movement in the country. This is because the government has fostered a narrative that links liberalization efforts to Westernization and the proliferation of American culture, ideas that have been unsurprisingly been condemned by Iran’s regime. Thus, the Iranian perception of the gender equality movement has been at least indirectly linked to the perception of the West. Put simply, when Iran views the liberal Western world positively – or at least not in a deeply antagonistic way – movements such as the gender rights movement become more tenable because the argument that liberalization leads to Westernization loses emotive strength.

When the US imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Iran prior to the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it incited resentment of the US and the West, inadvertently reinforcing the government’s far-right policies and enabling pushback against Iranian liberalism. This has manifested itself in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s belief that gender equality has been “one of the biggest mistakes of the Western thought”. The issue is compounded because, as Tara Povey comments, “working class and Middle class women have been detrimentally impacted by the sanctions regime, which has harmed ordinary Iranians and by neo-liberal policies which enriched a conservative political elite with connections to the regime, at the expense of the majority of the population.” The sanctions consequently hurt women in Iran by strengthening opposition towards Westernization and liberalization among the demographics of people most disposed to change. This has helped maintain societal opposition to gender equality.

It is important to consider the JCPOA and its implications for Iranian liberalism and the gender equality movement. From the Western side, the diplomatic dialogue with Iran through detente can help encourage the cultural shifts that are already happening within the younger portions of the country. These are trends that have recently been encapsulated by the election of the reformist President Hassan Rouhani, who has advocated eliminating gender based discrimination of any kind.

As Iran works to strengthen its economy in the aftermath of the JCPOA, it will inevitably come to the most apparent of realizations: Long run growth is only possible when women are given opportunity in the workforce.

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